Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Interview with Sarina Otaibi of Bluenose Gopher Brewery

Bluenose Gopher Brewing is an upcoming brewery which will be based out of Granite Falls, MN and it will be a cooperatively owned brewery in Minnesota. Granite Falls, MN is also, interestingly enough, the home of Andrew Volstead, who was responsible for the National Prohibition Act which banned the sales of alcohol in the United States from 1920 to 1933.

I sat down with Sarina Otaibi, Chair for Board of Directors of Bluenose Gopher, to discuss the history behind the brewery and what the plans are for the future.

Now I read a little bit about your background. You went to Stetson University in Florida and University of Maryland - College Park and now you're all the way out in Granite Falls, Minnesota. How did you end up there?

So I'm originally from the area, so I have a connection here already and I did goto high school here for a couple years while I was here but I did grow up in the Middle East so every summer I'd spend summers in Minnesota and travel back and forth. So after graduate school, I was offered a job to work for a non-profitc called Clean Up the River Environment (CURE) and D.C. was expensive and it was very competitive over there so I just decided to leave, take a chance and move out to the middle of nowhere and see where it took me.

Granite Falls, Minnesota, Birthplace of Andrew Volstead, who was the reason why Prohibition happened in the 1920's. Everyone who knows Minnesota Beer and it's history knows who Andrew Volstead is. Was the choice to set up Bluenose Gopher there a coincidence, an ironic gesture or just because?

So I'm really into history and I'm a historic preservationist, like that's my passion and I'm also on the Granite Falls Historical Society Board and we actually manage the Volstead House. I also learned through preservation that old buildings and breweries really go well together and brewpubs and that's very well known and so with people using Volstead's name in marketing and what-not for their breweries. I'm really into revitalizing downtowns and small towns, especially in rural areas. So, on purpose, I had a gut feeling that having a brewpub or brewery in Volstead's hometown me, has to work. So it was the perfect combination especially using the cooperative model as well because he did some really important legislature for that movement as well. So it was taking those two combined that we wanted to base the story and kind of bring it to the town's history as well as combine it with community and beer and what-not. It definitely wasn't an accident that is was directly related to the history of the town with Volstead's history and what-not.

Andrew Volsread

Speaking of the cooperative model, for those not familiar with it, how does the brewery model work?

So the cooperative model......people are familiar with food co-ops, but it's going to be similar to that structure. It's basically the this example will not be owned by certain individuals, it'll actually be owned by members and it will be overseen by and run but not on the day-to-day operations but overall operations by a board of directors that are elected by it's membership. That will happen on an annual basis and any profits that the brewery makes will go to it's members. At first it will go to business itself but later on in the years it will go to it's members; It doesn't goto one entity and it also serves the community and it's members. It's more of a consumer run business than by a couple of individuals, so it's that different model.

Now this will be the fourth cooperatively run brewery in the United States, is that correct?

There's actually....through internet research, there's a few that I found but I don't know what stages they are at. So there are so many cooperative breweries and I found at least over ten just through looking it up frequently. I don't know the exact number, I have it on a document that I have been updating and that they're in-progress. So we're still in progress but we have been incorporated as a co-op and we are accepting memberships so we're on our way but we are not as far along as Fair State (Brewing) where they have the building; Like they're already open, so they're different stages that different co-op breweries are at. So I don't know what number we are and I wouldn't want to say as I don't know the stages of other breweries.

Speaking of Fair State, what the decision to become a cooperative brewery based on what Fair State was doing or was it a choice independent of that?

It was definitely a choice independent of that because I didn't know that they existed actually. The way we found out we already started & incorporated and we found out through a friend actually that was picking hops in New London (Minnesota), trying to learn more about great beer and was talking to a friend about it and said to him that "My friend from college, he's actually starting one in the Cities" and I was like "Oh I thought we were going to be the first one." So it's just...that I found out through him that I looked them up and then they came out with their new website and what-not. So it was definitely the Volstead history with the co-op and the brewery but actually I should say that one of our board members, he became a member of Flying Bike (Brewing) in Seattle. I don't know if you've heard about them but they're still raising money and he became a member of their co-op brewery and that's actually how we made more of a connection like this is a thing that people are actually on this type of model. That's how I felt, just like how my friend who decided to become a co-op member of a brewery in Seattle which he's never been to or seen, that's where I got the idea that if he would do it, other people would be interested in it and that it would not be such an impossible concept.

How did you get together with the other people on the Board of Directors? 

It's actually made of people we know that have already started out since we haven't had an annual meeting yet where people are elected and we don't have any members, we just kind of started off with the founding Board of Directors. So the people that joined, it's just basically myself and this other guy Andrew Hodny, who's the Vice Chair; He's a lawyer in a neighboring town. My boyfriend, Tim Beckman, he's in charge of the brewing and learning that; He's an engineer in another town. Just our group of friends kind of. My mom, Mary Gillespie, she's a member of our board because she's a Chamber Director in our town and what not. So it's just kind of people like that which we started off with. There's only six of us right now but later on......we're still looking for another board member and hope next year to hold our first annual meeting where we can actually have proper election and people running and what-not.

Now I'm curious, where did the name Bluenose Gopher come from?

It actually came from a local blogger here and she's in Maynard. Sally Jo Sorensen, she's like a political blogger and she wrote as a status update one day "Well, I'll be a Bluenose Gopher" and she's actually referring to Volstead. My mom saw that and I saw it too and thought it was pretty funny and really catchy and so we have to credit her with that. We took it, she knows about it and she's proud! She does alot of research and what-not and I guess it was a term used in that time period and Bluenose, according to the dictionary, refers to somebody whose conservative, something similar to what prohibition kind of represents basically. For "Gopher", it's referring to the Minnesotan part. So it slyly refers to him without directly saying Volstead Brewery; Without using has name basically. We thought of other names but that one just kept coming up and it fit so well with the history and it was perfect, so it worked out.

Are there any plans of Bluenose Gopher to give back to the community? For example: Cleaning up the environment, etc.?

We do hope that where we succeed enough to where we can give to environmental causes. The brewery is right next to the Minnesota River; Actually our building is right along the Minnesota River and we have a view of it. So definitely those kind of things and also help revitalize the downtown and give to public art projects; We hope to be able to do that and we hope that we're successful enough to where we can do that. These are ideas we just talked about but we'd like to highlight non-profits, give certain proceeds. We do have to look at the business aspect of it  but yeah, we do hope to be giving somehow back to the community.

Now will this be a production brewery or brewpub?

We're going with a brewpub model. We weren't sure at first because we did think about using the taproom model, but after we figured out the differences and really thought it through, we felt like the brewpub model would work best in a small town in a rural area where people aren't as familiar with craft beer and so we like to have available other craft beers so we can help educate people about craft beer in general. Also we feel we need other options and food there to make it sustainable for now. Although we heard that it would be possible, if we want to expand in future years, to switch models if we could; I think that was my understanding anyway. Currently in our current building, it's a smaller building so a brewpub probably would work best right now.

And if people want to join, how do they go about doing that?

So our website would be a great place to start. We have a printout form that people can mail in if they prefer that method, but we also have an online application and it'll take credit cards pretty easily. We've actually gotten alot of memberships through our online application process. People can also email us at with any questions or if they need any help.

For more information regarding membership, you can head on over the official website at

You can follow them on Facebook at
You can also follow them on Twitter at

A very special thanks to Sarina for taking time to sit down with me for an interview. I'm looking forward to trying out offerings from Bluenose Gopher in the future!

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